Money troubles can ruin even the happiest relationships. No wonder that the conservative coalition is experiencing so much strain.
Conservatism could once be described as a three-cornered stool: social, economic and national security conservatives.
Today though it’s more relevant to think of conservatism as an attempt to draw a line connecting four points:
1) No tax increase
2) No defense cuts
3) No Medicare cuts
4) Rapid move to a balanced budget.
Obviously it’s impossible to meet all four of those commitments. It would be difficult enough to combine #4 with even two of the first three.
Much of the struggle within the conservative world can be understood as a quiet debate over which of those commitments to jettison.
The dominant group within CPAC for example would gladly jettison #2 and is less than enthusiastic about #3. When the Values Voters Summit convenes in October, you’ll see that its attendees are ready to jettison #4 and are less than 100% committed to #1.
Much of the 2012 GOP presidential nomination will attempt to send signals as to which commitments each candidate will sacrifice. Since so much of this signaling is non-verbal, it will be hard to pin down who truly is committed to which. But there’s a vibe. Tim Pawlenty for example seems less excited about #4 than Mitt Romney, never mind Mitch Daniels. Mike Huckabee’s voters will demand unwavering adherence to #3, which puts pressure on 1, 2 and 4.
And so on.
You can play this game at home too – and it may tell you a lot about the kind of conservative you really are.
In the spirit of full disclosure, here’s how I’d square the quadrangle.
I don’t think we should be moving rapidly to budget balance. The time for budget austerity begins when unemployment drops below 7%, not before.
I don’t think we can cut defense spending before we have successfully concluded commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. And generally I favor the Herb Stein approach to budgeting: First you decide how much it costs to maintain America’s global supremacy. Everything else comes after that.
I affirmatively want to see Medicare squeezed. The American health system is wasteful, wasteful, wasteful.
I am prepared to accept tax increases provided they fall on consumption and pollution rather than work, saving and investment. A carbon tax yes, a VAT if need be, but no increases in personal or corporate income taxes or capital gains taxes. On the other hand, the 15% tax rate on corporate dividends seems to me a laughably unjustifiable giveaway, even though I personally benefit from it.